Serena Williams’ terrifying childbirth story highlights alleged racism in US healthcare

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Kayleigh Dray
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Serena Williams explains why her dad didn’t walk her down the aisle

Serena Williams has revealed she suffered a major health scare shortly after giving birth to her daughter, Olympia. However, the professional sportswoman found it incredibly difficult to convince doctors and nurses that she needed urgent medical assistance.

Speaking to US Vogue about the incident, Serena Williams recalls how hospital staff were forced to carry out an emergency C-section when her baby’s heart rate plummeted. The surgery went off without a hitch, Williams recalls, and she was soon cuddling her daughter. However, less than 24 hours later, “everything went bad”.

The Grand Slam winner explains that, while she was recovering from surgery, she suddenly felt short of breath. Because of her history of blood clots, and because she was off her daily anticoagulant regimen due to the recent surgery, she immediately assumed she was having another pulmonary embolism.

However, despite reportedly telling hospital staff what she thought was happening, she was informed that her pain medicine “might be making her confused”. And, instead of giving her the CT scan and blood thinner she repeatedly requested, doctors reportedly ignored her requests and gave her an ultrasound, which revealed nothing.

“I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,” she recalls.

Finally, she was given the scan, which revealed a number of small blood clots in her lungs – exactly as the tennis star had suspected.

“I was like, listen to Dr. Williams!” she says.

The pulmonary embolism caused Williams to suffer a number of intense coughing spells, one of which was so violent that it popped her fresh C-section wound open – and she was forced to spend the “first six weeks of motherhood unable to get out of bed”.

While the athlete has since recovered from the incident, her story has highlighted the importance of listening to your own body and trusting what it is telling you.

However, while Williams had the ability to speak up for herself and demand the medical care she so desperately needed, many women – particularly those in the black community – are not so lucky.

“This happens to black women every single day,” wrote one social media user. “This is one reason our maternal mortality rates are ridiculously and disproportionately high.”

“Women are treated abysmally when it comes to pre-natal care, labour, birth and post-partum,” added another. “And, of course, what means women of colour are treated the worst.

“The statistics are staggering, gut-wrenching and individually heart-breaking.”

“Even Serena Williams can’t get proper care,” added another.

“This is why black women are statistically at the greatest risk for pregnancy-related deaths. The medical community does not take our pain seriously.”

And one more pointed out: “Serena Williams had the agency and financial means to advocate for herself and challenge nurses and doctors about her health.

“Think of how many working-class black women don’t have access to that and are being led to their deaths by obstetricians.”

These comments support the findings of an ongoing ProPublica investigation, which is looking into how medical professionals often ignore the plight of pregnant African American women in the United States.

“Overall, black women are 243% more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than white women are,” reports ProPublica – who recently shared the main findings of their ongoing report in a 15-part Twitter thread – found.

Theirs is not the first to highlight this disparity: the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) reports that black women are three to four times more likely to die of childbirth or pregnancy-related complications than white women, while the American College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology says at least 46% of maternal deaths among black women could be prevented (in comparison to 33% of maternal deaths among white women).

The statistics show that an “unconscious bias is rife throughout the US medical system, which is haunted by a history of slavery and segregation,” according to ProPublica.

The publication goes on to reveal that wealth and status have little to nothing to do with the issue: in fact, black college-educated mothers who give birth in local hospitals are more likely to suffer severe complications of pregnancy or childbirth than white women who never graduated from high school.

“It tells you that you can’t educate your way out of this problem,” says Raegan McDonald-Mosley, the chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

“You can’t health-care-access your way out of this problem. There’s something inherently wrong with the system that’s not valuing the lives of black women equally to white women.”

Hopefully, Williams’ story will help to highlight this issue further and bring about a much-needed reformation of the US healthcare system.

Images: Rex Features


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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.